As other teens her age rummage through their drawers to try on outfits, Alex Smith, 16, has been emptying hers and inspiring others to do the same.
The West Hall High School junior began a drive last week to collect T-shirts for orphans in El Salvador. Smith managed to amass 1,422 shirts, which topped her goal of 1,088, the number of students at her school.
“I am so grateful for my peers,” Smith said. “I learned how big of a difference one small project can make.”
Since the age of 14, the teenager has made several trips to El Salvador, the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America. She and her church group volunteered at three orphanages, where children often came from chaotic backgrounds, including extreme poverty and abuse.
Smith said she played with the children or provided homework help to free up time for the regular caretakers, who worked 24-hour days. She also helped with building projects in neighboring communities and provided food to the homeless at night.
“It was earth shattering,” Smith said. “The necessities are so different. They live day to day wondering if they’ll have access to food, clothes or water. It makes you think about what your own priorities are.”
Smith, whose International Baccalaureate diploma requires 150 hours of community service, came up with the idea to collect items she could deliver to the orphanages in person.
“It was practical. Everyone has T-shirts and there’s a big need for clothes,” Smith said. “Clothes are also easy to travel with.”
Her peers quickly latched onto the project after Smith went from classroom to classroom, giving presentations about El
Salvador in English and Spanish. More than 20 students attended the first meeting and volunteered to create flyers or collect T-shirts at lunch time.
“The presentations were very moving,” West Hall High School teacher Laurie Ecke said. “Suddenly people thought, ‘I care about this too.’”
Instead of donating old or ill-fitting clothes, Smith asked teens to donate T-shirts that had a personal connection. Smith said she donated a soccer shirt from a tournament she won her freshman year.
“There’s self-sacrifice involved,” Smith said. “You need to think that some child will be wearing this shirt and how it will bring them so much joy.”
After the school day, Smith piled the clothing in her parents’ car and spent the evening sorting through sizes, boxing and washing the T-shirts.
“There were so many,” Smith said of the loads of laundry.
Friday, Smith will travel to El Salvador for the weekend to present the donations. She also plans to return in the summer to continue her volunteer work.
Ecke, who described Smith as a “quiet and inspiring leader,” said she was amazed by Smith’s project.
“Her heart is sold out to these kids,” Ecke said.
“She found something she felt passionate about and thought, ‘How can I share this passion?’” Ecke added. “She organized the entire community behind a cause.”